And They Shall Be My People


The latest book I read is And They Shall Be My People by Paul Wilkes. A book I highly recommend.

After following a Catholic priest for a year and writing a bout it Paul Wikes, wanted to repeat the experience but with a Protestant minister. While looking for the right candidate, Wilkes found Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum and made up his mind to follow this Conservative rabbi instead.

In the end he wrote a fascinating book on the every day life of a rabbi, his congregation and his family. in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The book begins in October with a shul meeting where Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum suggests a trip to Israel to his congregants in the hope that the experience will change them and encourage them to follow a more observant life. It ends one year later after the High Holidays.

It is absolutely fascinating to follow Rabby Jay Rosenbaum in his daily life and work although the reader realizes how difficult and frustrating it is to be a rabbi. Rabbi Rosenbaum belongs to the UTJ (Union for Traditional Judaism), something his congregants are quite proud of even if few of them are observant Jews, and we feel the rabbi’s disapointment as he attempts to inspire the Jews he encounters every day by coming up with new ideas and programs.

I also enjoyed the book on a sociological level; it it was quite captivating to read about the life of an American Jewish congregation in the mid-1990s. Thus it was the time when numerous Russian Jews were welcomed by local Jewish communities yet, to everyone’s surprise, they were in no hurry to become shul members, something which is analyzed and explained very thoughtfully in the book.

We also understand how difficult it is for Janine to be the rabbi’s wife and lead a life under the scrutiny of a middle-sized town where all the Jews know each other and where your every action is examined and commented upon. Something which is all the more difficult as her own family lives in Seattle.

Near the end of this chronicle, Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum takes some of his congregants to Israel, even if the trip is not organized the way the rabbi had imagined eight months earlier. There he confronts his own contradictions when he realizes that the step of staying there is as hard for him as it is for his congregants to abandon their mainstream American comfort and step into a more observant life.

Today Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum is the rabbi of Herzl – Ner Tamid, a Conservative Seattle Congregation.

Women and Tallit


If you are Jewish and interested in what happens in the Jewish world, you must have heard that two weeks ago a woman – Nofrat Frenkel – was arrested for wearing a tallit at the Kotel.

Although I don’t wear a tallit myself, I know some women who do and have read a few things on the topic. Thus, two weeks after the event, I have chosen to post a few links on this issue; feel free to comment and/or provide more links.

Tallit, a piece of writing by Rabbi Louis Jacobs

The Road to Wearing a Tallit: Why an Orthodox Woman Wears a Tallit, found on JOFA’s website

– Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the spiritual leader of Ohev Sholom National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. devoted last week’s Dvar Torah to Women and Tallit from a halakhic point of view; well worth reading

A Step In The Right Direction?


A group of sixty French MPs is asking for an enquiry about the increasing number of women who are wearing a burqa in France. They request for the Parliament to set up a committee which would make proposals on how to combat such attire which they view as a threat to individual liberties.

Thus, recently, a French mayor refused to perform a wedding where the woman was wearing a burqa, stating that there was no way he could know if the bride was who she was claiming to be. He described what these women have to endure as “walking jails” and called for an Islam which respects French Republican principles of equality between men and women.

These MPs hope that such a committee will contribute to clarify the kind of Islam that is practised in France.

Similarly Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of Paris Great Mosque, said that Muslim French women were not expected to wear a burqa since nothing justifies it. He denounced such practises as a radical drift which should not be tolerated in France.

Pre-Pesach Suggested Reading


-For those who missed Monday’s post, The Chief Rabbi’s Haggadah, for its beautiful essays and commentary and emphasis on ethics by Jonathan Sacks.

– The chapter on Pesach in How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg.

Pesach for the Rest of Us: Making the Passover Seder Your Own by Marge Piercy, the American poet, novelist, and social activist. One I highly recommend it, whether you are a traditional Jew or a less conventional one. Marge Piercy beautifully combines tradition and more contemporary thoughts, highlighting how the different aspects of Pesach are still relevant for us today. Marge Piercy is a writer and she has obviously spent a lot of time investigating Jewish commentaries on Pesach. Thus she manages to convey the wealth contained in each detail of the seder night in a way I could never dream of achieving.

Festival of Freedom by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a series of ten essays on Pesach and the Haggadah. Not as difficult a book as his other ones. These essays are quite enlightning and provide profound insights on different aspects of this holiday.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

Did Anyone Say Sheep?


 Yesterday was Eid al-Adha, a Muslim festival also called the Festival of Sacrifice. Some of our students celebrate this religious festival and accordingly take the day off.

In case you are wondering, Eid al-Adha is the commemoration of the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son Ishmael as an act of obedience to God – a kind of Muslim version of the Akeidah.

Here is a story a colleague told us this morning:
As she is taking the register everyone notices that all the Muslim students are absent except one, Larbi. Students being prone to welcome any opportunity to take a day off, they all turn to Larbi and ask him why he is present when he could have stayed at home. The latter explains that he didn’t think the festival was worth missing classes for.

Being the only Muslim in the class, Larbi is then deemed to be an authority on Islam and one student asks him what Eid al-Adha is all about. Larbi hardly hesitates and explains that it is to commemorate Jason and the Golden Fleece.

Judaism and Martial Arts


When I went to Hong Kong last year, I met a French woman whose favorite physical activity was Kendo, a sport she had learnt in Japan. Talking with her about this martial art and then reading about martial arts in general, I couldn’t help noticing a number of similarities between Judaism and martial arts.

In Pirkei Avot, we are told “make for yourself a rav” (aseh lecha rav). This aspect of learning is also momentous in martial arts. Thus one of the first words a new-comer learns in any Japanese martial art is Sensei,teacher in Japanese and this is how the instructor is addressed by the learners.

Both Judaism and martial arts emphasize traditional learning and teaching. In Judaism, it is important not to lose what the former generations have taught. That’s why we put so much emphass on learning by examining what other people have said before us, as well as remembering our ancestors and their lessons in our prayer service and through the recitation of the Torah cycle. Honoring our ancestors and where we have come from is integral to Judaism.This is also the case in the Chinese-Japanese world where martial arts evolved over the centuries as practitioners refined and passed their skills and beliefs from generation to generation. Masters trained new masters and techniques became more precise and focused.

Rabbi Daniel Kohn of Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar compares Aikido and Judaism: “Both promote the creation of world peace through improving individuals and society.” In both Judaism and martial arts, you are taught that you can improve, that indeed you have to improve.

Those who are weary of certain practices in martial arts, such as bowing to pictures and statues, can practise Tora Dojo, a form of martial arts established in New York City in 1967 by Harvey (Chaim) Sober of Yeshiva University. There are clubs in both the Unites States and Israel.

Meditation will also help the individual pray with more kavanah (concentration). Haaretz once had an article “kosher karate” which introduced Tora Dojo to its readers. It quoted a Jewish karateka on the benefice he got from it.
“I am religious, and when I was studying at a yeshiva I was told that I have to pray with kavana but no rabbi told me how. I found I could connect to kavana through tora dojo, especially the meditation and guided imaging. After all, all prayer is a kind of meditation or trance.”
The same man says he once turned to “a great rabbi,” and asked whether he was “transgressing boundaries.” He says the rabbi told him, “Of course not. That is how prayer is supposed to be; the individual should be seeing himself as though he is standing before the Shekhinah,” God’s presence on earth

“Progress comes
To those who
Train and train;
Reliance on secret techniques
Will get you nowhere.” (Morihei Ueshiba founder of Aikido)

A Few Facts

chiefrabbi.jpgHirhurim started a discussion about the new Chief Rabbi of France Gilles Bernheim last Thursday. This post has attracted a number of comments since its beginning. One of the things which seemed to worry the commentators is Bernheim’s latest book: “Le rabbin et le cardinal” (The Rabbi and The Cardinal), a long conversation with Lyon Cardinal Philippe Barbarin.

I visited my parents today and we talked about recent Bernheim’s election. In fact, they had taped “La Source de Vie” a Jewish Sunday TV program hosted by a French rabbi Josy Eisenberg. Eisenberg had invited both Bernheim and Barbarin to talk about the book they published together.

For this post I have chosen to focus on what the rabbi said rather than on the cardinal’s contribution.

Some commentators bemoaned the rabbi’s enterprise just before the rabbinical election. In fact during the conversation the two men explained that a journalist, Jean-François Mondot, had contacted them asking if they would agree to hold a dialogue on what they each believed. It seems neither of them had initiated it.

The Chief Rabbi explained why it was important for a man in his position, in this country, to know what other faiths held true even though you might disagree with them. He added that when he was younger he had very little interest in Christianity and that his own father never mentioned “you know who” at home. However when he studied to become a rabbi he was encouraged by three of his teachers to examine Christianity so as to understand the context in which he’d be working. These men were Charles Touati and two former Chief Rabbis: Jacob Kaplan and René-Samuel Sirat.

It seems that one of Bernheim’s aspirations as France’s Chief Rabbi is in fact very similar to that of Jacob Kaplan – express a Jewish voice in a non-Jewish environment.

I’d like to apologize for the fact that the links I have provided are in French. I tried to find some in English but in vain.

Where I Have Been This Week

chezcatrin.jpgEveryone Needs Therapy gives sound advice to parents on how to bring about a healthy discussion about high-risk behavior with your teenagers.

At Hirhurim you will find the beginning of an ongoing series of guest posts by leaders from across the Jewish spectrum about why people become Orthodox. So far two Conservative rabbis, Rabbi David Wolpe and Rabbi Charles L. Arian, have shared insights.

Cooking with Yiddishe mama points to a CNN report about 5 foods that are good for you. A most welcome article as it includes 3 of my favorite foods.

I’ve just discovered a blog run by a young French woman who is studying to become a journalist. Apparently all the students in her school have been assigned to keep a blog. Yasmina has chosen to devote hers to Israeli films.

No Gemara but Numerous Commentators

This is my second contribution to a summer exploration of Pirkei Avot along with Leora and Frumhouse. After a short discussion on its name, I decided to deal with two of its particularities.

Pirkei Avot is a tractate of the Mishnah. The Mishnah itself falls into six orders. Each order consists of 7-12 tractates; there are 63 tractates altogether. Pirkei Avot is the penultimate tractate in Nezikin (damages); an order which deals with with civil and criminal law, the functioning of the courts and oaths.

The Mishnah is the first part of the Talmud. It is a collection of legal opinions and debates and was compiled by Rabbi Judah haNasi, who feared the oral tradition might be forgotten, around 200 CE.

Since the statements in the Mishnah are particularly concise, they were analyzed, debated and discussed by later rabbis in Babylonia between 200 and 500 CE and in Israel between 200 and 400 CE. These discussions and exchanges make up the Gemara; there are therefore two Gemarot, a Babylonian Gemara and a Palestinian Gemara.

Hence it seems logical to assume that all Mishnah tractates have a commentary in the Gemara. However this is not the case; thus there are only 36 Talmudic developments in the Babylonian Talmud for 63 tractates. Some of these commentaries have been lost. Other tractates have had no analysis or developments because they have no, or little, Halakhic content. This is how the lack of a development for Pirkei Avot is explained.

It seems however that this tractate has inspired more later commentaries than any other single tractate. The oldest being one of the minor tractates of the Talmud, Avot deRabbi Nathan (“The Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan”), which constitutes an expansion of the Mishnaic tractate containing numerous additional ethical teachings and legends. Other famous classic commentators include Rashi, Simcha Ben Samuel of Vitry, a French Talmudist of the 11th and 12th centuries, and also Maimonides who, in 1168, published a comprehensive commentary on the Mishnah written in Arabic and which contains a famous introduction to Pirkei Avot.

More recently great Chassidic masters as well as Mussar teachers have added their commentaries so as to explain how the teachings in Pirkei Avot are relevant if we are to lead ethical lives.

For more recent references, you can read Leora’s post on books on Pirkei Avot which follows her introduction to the topic.